Rail watchdog acts over lost connections

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RAILWAY companies may be forced to hold connecting services for passengers under plans being considered by the rail regulator.

John Swift QC acted after concerns were raised with his office by consumer watchdogs who say that the present performance regime, which penalises companies that let their trains run late, means rail firms put profit before passengers.

The current system, say some experts, gives companies no reason to be concerned about passengers once they have deposited them at a stop.

Keith Webb, a director at the regulator's office, said: "What we are looking for is that train operating companies look beyond their narrow interests for network benefits."

A review of the fines system and connections will be launched in the next few weeks. New powers may see train operators' contracts being modified so that connections become part of the guaranteed minimum service passengers are entitled to.

The performance of some parts of the rail network has infuriated travellers. In the South West, the worst lines, according to the Rail Users' Consultative Committee, are the Swindon to Gloucester trip and the journey from Exeter to Barnstaple. On the latter, passengers from London use the Great Western service to get to Swindon and often see the connecting Wales and West train leaving the station.

Another connection that angers passengers is between Reading and Newbury in Berkshire. Thames Trains, the company that operates from Reading, will not hold the connecting train. "Thames say they will only hold the last train at night," said Sean O'Neill, a spokesman for the Western RUCC.

The view is not uncommon in the industry. Chris Garnett, managing director of Great North Eastern Railways, asked when his company took over the high-speed east coast route: "Are you looking after the interests of more than 300 people on a main-line train or the dozen or so who may be joining from a two-car diesel train from somewhere else?"

However, this view has not impressed passenger watchdogs. The RUCC for Wales pointed out that passengers travelling west from Swansea who miss their connecting train face a three-hour wait.

In its annual report, the Welsh passenger watchdog, said that there were "inadequate" provisions for connections and that catering for them was "unacceptably omitted".

Critics of privatisation seized on the regulator's actions as evidence that the train companies are failing to deliver. "There is nothing more frustrating for passengers than seeing their connection pull out of the station just as the train they are on arrives. Yet on our 'Balkanised' rail network it happens all the time," said Jonathan Bray, campaigns director for Save Our Railways.

A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc), which represents the passenger parts of the private railways, said many firms rely on connecting services for passengers. David Campbell-Bannerman, a director with Atoc, said: "On Virgin's CrossCountry service more than 40 per cent of passengers originated from another company."